The 1970’s was a volatile time in the music industry, not just in gospel. Every genre was experiencing growth as it was bombarded with all sorts of styles. In an attempt to be a cross-over artist to broaden their audience or just because they felt that they could, many artists were trying their hand at these new-fangled sounds. The Downings jumped on that band-wagon earlier on in the 70s, and as time went on, they dug their heels deeper and deeper, and for their final recording, they created a full-on contemporary album, which bore little to no semblance to the style that brought the Downings to the table and made them a household name.
“Birthplace” isn’t nearly as eclectic as “Spiritfest” was, as this album has a more polished and sophisticated contemporary feel to it. Dony McGuire is, once again is listed as Producer, with Paul listed as Co-Producer. There are 9 musicians credited on the album along with strings and brass. Barry McDonald (who did a phenomenal job with orchestrations on their “I Feel So Good About It” album) is brought back in to handle the string and brass arrangements for the album. While the orchestrations on “Birthplace” aren’t nearly as robust as on their “I Feel So Good About It” recording, they definitely have a unique feel on this album. Also worth mentioning is that Dony is now a full-fledged songwriter as he wrote or co-wrote 8 songs on this album (4 of which were written with Paul). With Dony producing, playing several instruments, and writing most of the songs on the album, it vastly affected the musical direction for “Birthplace”, and it’s one of the first albums in a long line of recordings that bare his musical fingerprints from top to bottom! Released on the Impact label, “Birthplace” would end up being the Downings’ “swansong” album.
The album starts off with the pop sounding, feel-good tune, “I’ve Got a Song”, which features a dynamic performance by Joy. Written by Dony and Paul, the song was inspired by Gladys Knight & The Pips’ hit, “I Feel a Song in My Heart”. Gospel Music has always taken secular songs and tried to reinvent them as gospel songs (even as far back as the old “quartet” days), and the Downings did a great job with this song. It charted briefly in the summer of 1977, peaking at #17 in September of that year, and it would be the last Top 20 song for the Downings.
As the tempo slows down, Ann is featured on the song “I Know His Name”. Written by Jimmy Pearce, this is probably my favorite song on this album, and it recalls the types of songs that Ann sang a few years prior that won the hearts of fans everywhere. Backed by a nice brass section, I love the genuineness of Ann’s performance on the song.
Featuring a really nice opening with a string quartet, Dony sings his own composition, “I’m Not Lonely”. Musically inspired by the country hit, “I’m Not Lisa” which was sung by Jessi Colter, the song is a highlight of the album and one of my favorite Dony features. Also, not just the strings at the beginning, but the strings throughout the song really make this a highly enjoyable tune for the ears.
Paul and Dony wrote the medium tempo, “Sunshine”, which features Paul on the verses and Dony taking the lead on the chorus. I really love the pop/country feel of this song before the tempo picks up a bit for the pop flavored, electric guitar and brass infused, “Beautiful People”, which rounds out the first side.
With its thumping bass, tinkling cymbals, electric guitar and quick beat, the highly invigorating “Better Days” gets the second side underway. Featuring Joy, Dony wrote this song one night while driving the bus and as he wrote the song, he drove faster and faster and that charisma comes through as it’s a highly enjoyable number, before the tempo slows down a bit for the medium tempo, “Little Children”, which features a really nice performance by Paul. With its string and banjo accents, I love this little prayer in song asking the Lord to help us be as a little child, and it’s one of my favorites from the recording before Ann steps up and takes the lead on the electric guitar driven, “You’re the One”.
With its beautifully orchestrated track, Joy sings the worshipful, “Lift Him Higher”, before the album closes out with the highly orchestrated, contemplative anthem, “If We Were One”, which features Dony. It’s the perfect finish for the album and a song I’d love to hear someone bring back today.
This would be the last album by the Downings, as by 1978, the group was no longer together. Dony started a contemporary band called McGuire, along with Joy and some of the Downings’ former band members, and they recorded one album, “Destined to Be Yours” for Greentree Records (a subsidiary of the Benson Company). Eventually Dony went into doing a lot of studio work and recorded a couple of solo albums. He eventually married Reba Rambo and joined ranks with the Rambos by the early 80s. Dony and Reba ministered together for many years where they both continued to produce, record, write and sing. Joy married Landy Gardner, and they both led the famed Christ Church Choir from Nashville, Tennessee. Joy has continued to sing and has been a much sought-after vocalist doing background vocals for various artists, as well as singing with the choir, which has backed up numerous artists such as Dolly Parton, the Judds, Gold City and countless others across multiple genres. Joy has also been a popular singer on the Gaither Homecoming videos as well.
For a time, Ann and Paul worked regular jobs, but throughout the late 70s and into the 80s, they would attempt to re-group the Downings from time to time with various vocalists, but nothing would ever stick. They did record one album in 1983 called, “Lead Me to That Rock” which featured mostly new vocals to the original tracks from their albums from back in the 70s, along with a few new tunes thrown in. For most of the 80s, Paul and Ann did a lot of ministering together as a duet, focusing on marriage workshops, ladies’ retreats, etc. Ann also did some solo dates and recorded a couple of solo albums during this time as well. By late 1991, Paul and Ann were working to put the Downings back together once again, but sadly Paul suffered a heart attack on December 29, 1991, and would ultimately pass away nearly 2 months later, on February 23, 1992. Ann has continued to minister as a soloist in concerts and churches, as well as a speaker at various ladies’ events and has also been a popular singer on the Gaither Homecoming videos. Ann has enjoyed tremendous success as a soloist with such songs as “I Must Tell Jesus”, “Long and Winding Road”, “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”, and many others. She is also a very accomplished songwriter with several tremendous songs to her credit including, “He Already Knew Me”, “Love Grows Here”, “Bring on the Joy”, “Earth Has No Sorrow”, “Stay Close to Me” and many others. Ann continues to write, sing and minister today, and in addition to her travels, she has a weekly Facebook “Live” show each week called, “It Is What It Is…Live”. From time to time, Ann and the former members of the Downings have come together for reunion events at various places and times, and they have always been met with great enthusiasm and excitement!
I can’t believe we’re at the end; this series with the Downings definitely went by way too fast for me! The Downings were a groundbreaking group, and I wish they had been able to continue through the remainder of the 70s and into the 80s and beyond. There is no telling the music they would have churned out had they continued! Their mark is still felt today though, and their legacy is heard in not just Southern Gospel, but also in the Contemporary genre as well as in Church and Worship music, as their legacy continues to live on in many ways!
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